An Edible Actuator for Ingestible Robots

We're one gelatin-based gripper closer towards robots that you can eat

3 min read
An Edible Actuator for Ingestible Robots
We're one gelatin-based gripper closer towards robots that you can eat.
Photo: EPFL

Researchers have long been trying to make electronics that are safe to eat. These include edible transistors, sensors, batteries, electrodes, and capacitors, which (if you put them together) are most of an edible robot. What’s been missing so far has been the thing that makes a robot distinct from a computing system, and that’s an edible actuator that would allow an ingestible robot to actually do something useful once you’ve swallowed it.

At IROS last week, researchers from EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, headed by Dario Floreano, presented a prototype of a completely edible soft pneumatic actuator made of gelatin. It probably doesn’t taste very good, but it’s biodegradable, biocompatible, and environmentally sustainable, and could enable all kinds of novel applications, as the researchers explain in their paper:

The components of such edible robots could be mixed with nutrient or pharmaceutical components for digestion and metabolization. Potential applications are disposable robots for exploration, digestible robots for medical purposes in humans and animals, and food transportation where the robot does not require additional payload because the robot is the food.

The robot is the food. Whoa.

The actuator is made from a mix of gelatin, glycerin, and water that’s poured into a mold. The overall design is a standard one for pneumatic actuators (and the performance is similar); the structure causes it to bend when inflated and straighten out again when pressure is reduced. What’s novel about this is the composition and edibleness, and as it turns out, making it edible has some additional benefits: Since gelatin is melty, the edible version could be capable of self-healing, which conventional pneumatic actuators typically are not.

Edible robot The researchers conducted a gripper grasping test, adjusting the actuated force to allow the gripper to handle objects of different sizes and shapes, including: an apple (95.6 grams), a boiled egg (47.7 g), an orange (104.8 g), a Lego brick (25.7 g), and a bottle of chewing gum (153.1 g). Image: EPFL

At the end of the IROS presentation, an audience member asked the obvious question: The actuator is technically edible, but has anyone actually eaten one? In fact, they have, or at least bits and pieces left over from the manufacturing process. And as far as we know, none of the ingested actuators have later clawed their way out of anyone’s stomach from the inside.

At the end of the presentation, an audience member asked the obvious question: The actuator is technically edible, but has anyone actually eaten one? In fact, they have, or at least bits and pieces

As for what we have to look forward to with edible robots, I won’t even speculate, because you wouldn’t believe me. Instead, I’ll just quote the paper, so that you can not believe that instead:

Fully edible robots would help to study how wild animals collectively behave. The robots could also take a role of animals prey to observe their hunting behaviors, or to train protected animals to do predation. Once medical components are mixed into the edible composition, the robots could help preservation of wild animals or heal inside of the human body. When edible robots can be metabolized, they also function as energy storage providing an advantage in terms of increased payload with respect to non-edible robots that must be loaded with a food payload. This would be effective in rescue scenarios where the metabolizable robots can reach survivors in isolated places like inside a crevice or up on mountain. Last, but not least, since edible materials can generate electric energy, one could envisage autophagy (self-eating) function, like that of octopus, to extend their lifetime.

“Soft Pneumatic Gelatin Actuator for Edible Robotics,” by Jun Shintake, Harshal Sonar, Egor Piskarev, Jamie Paik, and Dario Floreano from EPFL was presented last week at IROS 2017 in Vancouver, Canada.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

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This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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